Retrospective: Sonic Colors Ten Years Later

It may be hard to believe, but Sonic Colors, the Sonic Team game exclusively for Nintendo consoles that supposedly sparked a minor renaissance of sorts for the series, has been on the scene for a decade now!

When it first released, 2010’s interstellar platforming adventure was lauded as a return to form for Sonic, overshadowing the less impressive Sonic 4 in the process. As a response to the criticism of Sonic Unleashed’s Werehog and general fatigue from melodramatic storylines, Sonic Colors pared things down and focused on what made Sonic a gaming superstar to begin with: good platforming, creative environments, a straightforward narrative, and most importantly, an emphasis on speed.

There were no gimmicks. No swords, no awkward motion controls, no God of War knock-offs, no princesses to rescue, no existentially questioning stories and no “friends” to play as. It was just Sonic (with Tails as a key supporting character) and Dr Eggman and his robot minions fighting to decide the fate of a race of cute, colorful aliens known as Wisps that also doubled as the series’ new form of power-ups.

Fans and critics appreciated it’s focus on the basics and found the less intense (if a bit corny) storyline to be a refreshing change of pace. Additionally, the implementation of the Wisps’ abilities struck a balance by introducing new gameplay concepts without completely derailing the experience. Overall, Sonic Colors was considered to be the first “good” 3D Sonic game in a long while, if not the first “good” 3D Sonic ever made, depending on who you asked.

The Colors Feel “Alright”

As the years went on and we saw the release of the near-universally loved Sonic Generations, controversial Sonic Lost World and absolute dud Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, Sonic fans started having their doubts on this supposed “Sonic Renaissance.” The narrative started to shift on Colors’ influence as one that enabled the series to take itself far less seriously to the point that it was nothing more than a self-referential joke. Many fans found the gameplay in Colors to be less interesting than it was praised for, and the common opinions of “blocky platforming” and “bad jokes” started to take shape as the new norm. Additionally, Wisps as a concept were soon seen as a problem in itself, and Colors had to take the blame for introducing them in the first place.

Sonic Colors had seemingly lost it’s luster; no longer remembered as a bright spot in the series’ history and now known as a false start. If you peruse Twitter, Reddit or Facebook for the latest takes on the series, its emphasis on lighthearted humor and focus on 2D as a gameplay standard is not well liked. The odds are stacked against it these days, and it’s not difficult to sympathize with it’s many detractors. At best, Colors is thought of as “okay,” or “good enough” with very few fans defending it. It has its appreciators, but that’s true for almost any Sonic game.

Though Fatigued, Color Me Intrigued

For me, it had gotten to a point to where I just accepted this notion as fact. Of course Colors isn’t that great. It’s good, sure, but it’s not actually a 3D game, just a bunch of “blocky” 2D levels with the occasional spot to use a power-up and some forward running sections. Wisps broke the pacing, right? The “underwear” jokes prove that this is just bargain-bin kiddy stuff, right?

I didn’t bother challenging this mindset for quite some time. While I did acknowledge that I had a fun time playing it when it first came out, I would brush it off as just me being excited about a new Sonic game. I never really revisited it, neither the Wii nor the DS version. In time I’d end up selling them. I already played them, so what was the point? Who replays a less than 6 hour game?

Recently, however, I started to re-think my approach. What if I was denying my own personal experiences in favor of following the hivemind? It had been 10 years, after all. I can pick up a used copy in my adulthood and just play it again in my free time. The last Sonic game I enjoyed was Sonic Mania, and it’s been a few years since that game launched. It was time to experience something fresh, if not re-experience a game I haven’t touched in ages.

So I went ahead and set myself on a mission. I was going to replay both versions of Sonic Colors, and write a retrospective to determine if this game was indeed over-hyped and over-rated, or if the fanbase has been too harsh. Was Sonic Colors really as dull, juvenile and un-inspired as is claimed? Well, I bought both versions and spent the past month playing them (with some breaks to play other games like Mania and Adventure 2 to keep my palette sharp), and I’ve changed my thoughts on the game quite a bit.

A Wii-freshing Experience

Sonic Colors is neither the return to form I was told it was, nor is it the harbinger of a new dark age for the franchise. Both versions of are genuinely good and polished experiences with their strengths and weaknesses. There’s an incredible charm within these games that has seen little match across the series’ nearly 3 decade tenure, and playing it again after nearly ten years has been a delight.

Well, mostly.

Many criticisms still ring true. The Wii version indeed has a particularly bad habit of relying on side-scrolling sections to provide the bulk of playable content, and at times it can be frustrating to get to grips with Sonic’s strange jump physics. There’s not much in the way of curves and slopes, the sort of platforming you’ll be doing in Colors Wii is more cumbersome and calculating. For some levels, this could be because they were designed to be more like a puzzle platformer; and considering the focus is on the Wisps, I think that makes sense. Now, I happened to have a good time with them more often than not, but traditional Sonic level design this is not.

As far as clear-cut positives, Colors Wii has more than it’s fair share of spectacle and vertigo to set it apart as one of the most beautiful games in the series, even considering the Wii’s limited resolution output. That said, this aspect is rarely contested to begin with. The environments radiate creativity from start to finish; I’ll never get tired of seeing Starlight Carnival’s armada of personified constellations shining in the background, nor will I get bored of the absolute beauty of Planet Wisps alien trees. Even the grungy Asteroid Coaster is charming in it’s portrayal of an outer space wasteland with toxic ooze and broken, skull-adorned roller coasters.

Joining the list of positives for this game is it’s incredible soundtrack, with catchy and energetic music that sets the mood perfectly. The great visuals and the catchy music are important, because you’ll be spending a lot of time in these stages.

The levels are designed to be played again and again with the Red Rings as the collectible component and the challenge to nab an “S” Rank as the temptation for more invested players. Your mileage will certainly vary here, but if you’re a sucker for collectables and testing your skill, Colors Wii facilitates that very nicely; even if a lot of the level design is… well, blocky. Grinding every act to get all of the Red Rings can be either stimulating or fatiguing, but on the whole there’s a lot of reasons to jump back into action after completing a level.

Also, the sillier storyline is not quite as embarrassing as I remember it. Yes, there’s that uninspiring translator gag that goes on longer than it needs to, and “Baldy Nosehair” is objectively awful. In contrast, I’ve actually laughed at some of the “Dad Joke” level humor and low-stakes conversations that excel at giving Sonic and Tails some brotherly chemistry. I remembered how much I loved it when it first came out, and I love it even more now! They’re portrayed as personalities rather than mascots that shout one-liners. It’s like a Saturday morning cartoon, and sometimes that’s okay for Sonic.

Even the Wisps aren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. There are some duds: Purple Frenzy and Pink Spikes are both frustrating to control, and the Blue Cube feels especially tacked on, but others like the Cyan Laser, Yellow Drill and Green Hover are implemented far better, and stick out as fun ways to interact with the stage layouts.

While the Wii version is indeed rough around the edges and feels less like a 3D Sonic game than it does a 2D one, it still offers up a fun smorgasbord of spectacle and challenge without taking itself seriously. As a package, it’s one of the more fun games I’ve played in quite a while! But this is the Wii version, how does the DS version compare?

Double the Screens, Double the Fun?

The Nintendo DS version surprised me even more by being almost a completely different game. Colors on the DS is developed by Dimps, the same label behind Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure, however upon further research, not a lot of the same game and level designers are on board, and it shows. This isn’t just “Sonic Rush 3.”

Colors DS is entirely a 2D game (with some odd behind-the-back spectacle as well as some half-pipe Special Stages) and it takes advantage of that fact by sticking to more traditional “Sonic” level design. More curves, loops and ramps and less floating blocks, if you will; and thankfully far fewer death pits than any of the Rush games.

Sonic’s core controls mimic that of Sonic Rush with having both the spindash and roll in harmony with the boost mechanic, but unlike previous DS platformers, Sonic now has a wall-jump, stomp, slide and homing attack built into his moveset. When paired with more forgiving and exploration-friendly level design, this drastically enhances the experience, and makes Sonic more fun to control in a Modern 2D game than anything before this point, Colors Wii included, setting it far apart from the Rush series. There’s nothing quite like blasting through a level, exploring multiple paths and using any combination of Sonic’s moves to maneuver through the stage in a flashy and stylish way.

Another strong point in Colors DS’s favor is how the levels are arranged; Colors Wii has 6 acts and a boss for each area, and all of them need to be played to progress, whether or not you’re having fun with them. The DS version, by contrast, has a more traditional two act and one boss structure with three “Mission Acts” (featuring the extended cast, such as Silver, Blaze, Team Chaotix and Big) that offer a variety of challenges that can be skipped if the player isn’t interested.

Finally, there’s the inclusion of some fun touch-screen controlled Special Stages which round out the bonus content, leading to a surprise final boss that isn’t in the Wii version. This difference in structure vastly improves the pacing and vibe of completing the game, and as a result is less tedious compared to the obligate micro-acts in Colors Wii.

As a result of this level design and progression structure, the DS version feel more like a “standard” Sonic game than it’s Wii counterpart. What it gains in pure gameplay it loses in spectacle, however. The DS simply can’t keep up with the Nintendo Wii, and you’ll never get the sweeping camera shots of Starlight Carnival’s space armada, nor the flashy roller coasters of Asteroid Coaster. It’s worth noting if you play Sonic games for the visual thrills, and that spectacle is an important component in Sonic design.

The other major drawback to Sonic Colors on the DS is the implementation of certain Wisps. They’re just not as fun, and it’s honestly a bit disappointing. In some cases, the impressive level design barely gets to shine with certain Wisps like the Red Burst and Violet Void stealing all the attention; it almost overstays it’s welcome. It feels like the Wii version was better suited for the vast variety of powerups, while the DS version needed it less.

Different Shades of Fun

Once you compare and contrast both versions of Sonic Colors, it’s fairly easy to come to the conclusion that they’re quite different despite sharing the same premise. There are distinct visual advantages to the Wii version having more powerful hardware beneath it, but the DS version’s portable nature and inherent limitations drive a more traditional experience.

Whichever version appeals to you is ultimately subjective, however; and on the whole both have a lot to offer in terms of replay value. I found both to be truly fun and excel at what they try to do, despite being a little rough around the edges. I found myself wanting to return to the DS version more frequently to improve my skills at completing each level for better ranks; and the Wii version, though less tempting, still held the promise of keeping me entertained with incredible aesthetics and some challenging levels I could replay to find all of the hidden Red Rings.

Speaking With My Heart

So… was it over-hyped? Maybe. Was it as bad as some say? Definitely not.

Did I have fun? YES.

I had a TON of fun replaying Sonic Colors. The few instances of frustration with some annoying level design choices (in either version) are greatly overshadowed by the incredibly fun and charming experience they provide, and that secondhand embarrassment from some of the lame jokes really don’t do much to get in-between me and the action. I also think the Wisps offer good variety, and some pretty interesting potential for the future, even if some of them fell flat in their execution this game. More often than not, though, they enhanced the experience, which is more than I can say for other Modern Sonic games I’ve played.

Neither game’s 2D level design reach the masterful peaks that Sonic Mania did, nor do the 3D areas match the adrenaline-inducing spectacle that Sonic Unleashed’s Day stages offered. Many would argued that they should. However with everything being said and done, I’m still having a really fun time. I say this in the present tense, because I’m not done with either version. I’m still jumping back into either game to get my fill of fun, and I can’t quite get enough yet!

Sonic Colors, either version, is pretty good in my eyes; in fact, it’s a little better than I remember! I’m not going to defend it’s shortcomings, nor am I going to pretend like I never once got frustrated with it. My ultimate takeaway, and what I want to pose to my readers as a challenge, is to question any prevailing narrative you may have heard about Sonic Colors, and any other Sonic game for that matter.

Don’t let it prevent you from giving it a chance or putting the time into understanding it better, and don’t worry if you come out of it disappointed or less than impressed. You might discover a new favorite, you might not. What you do gain, however, is your own experience to judge it by, and not someone else’s. That’s far more valuable than all of the gold rings in the world.

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Indigo Rush

Indigo Rush (Alex) is a longtime member of the Sonic Stadium's message boards. If you're into memes, check out his Meme Bean account on Twitter for shenanigans of the Robotnik variety! https://twitter.com/memebeanregime

8 Comments

  1. A genuinely thought provoking piece and a poignant message for all fans of this series. I was 11 when I got the game myself and remember being thoroughly entranced by the game; enjoying the visuals, sound, music and gameplay as well as getting a genuine laugh out of many of the jokes.

    While the years following have had many fans pit a lot of blame being on the game for starting the series in its current direction, it was definitely the talk of the fandom at the time, a good game after what was a near decade of drought for some fans and a starting point for many much younger fans. Credit where credit is due I believe. Maybe not the game everyone wanted but many people also enjoy the game and honestly, when it comes to gaming, what’s more important than having fun or enjoying the experience.

  2. I have to say I love Sonic Colors DS and I firmly believe is better than the wii version, the later is fun but honestly is my least favorite boost game out of the bunch.

  3. Great re-views. I would love a Switch port of Colours some day. I consider it to be a really solid Sonic game. It’s a shame we can’t play it in HD.

  4. I’ve played both versions often enough to stand by my feelings that they’re servicable, inoffensive entries into the Sonic series but ultimately don’t get anywhere close to the franchise at it’s best. You’d wonder why I’d play them “often enough” if that’s the case – I admit, they’re one of those games that I really enjoyed first time around, but felt shallow on each subsequent go-around. Every now and then I get the urge to give them another shot but always get let down that the blocky platforming and emphasis on 2D can’t match to Unleashed’s daytime gameplay at it’s best. As time goes by I edge closer and closer to learning my lesson and just sticking the soundtrack on when I want to revisit Colours.

    Having said all that, this was an excellent and fair article regarding the games Indigo, great read!

  5. I’ve probably played more Colors in the past week than I have in the preceding 10 years, haha. Y’know how Generations and Unleashed had “real” stages with a nice mix of 2D and 3D gameplay, in addition to more gimmicky, optional bonus acts and missions? Turns out, Colors was designed to be the same way: It was meant to have two “real” acts per zone, and a few bonus levels.

    At some point in development, Sonic Team may have been worried the game would be too short. So they decided to split many of the longer acts in two, mix in the bonus levels, and pad Colors out by making the player do EVERYTHING. There’s an file that describes the internal stage list, and if you translated it, it would basically read:

    Tropical Resort Act 1 (the first half of the old act 1)
    Tropical Resort Act 2 (the second half of the old act 1)
    Tropical Resort Act 3 (the old act 2)

    Plenty of other stages were split non-sequentially, though! For instance, “the old” Planet Wisp Act 1 has been split between acts 1 and 4.

    Imagine a version of SA2, Unleashed, or Generations that forced you to play EVERY SINGLE MISSION to progress to the next stage, made no attempt to delineate its gimmicky bonus acts from the “real” levels, and even split a lot of those levels into two separate acts. That’s basically what they did with Colors.

    And like, I don’t even think most of those gimmick acts are BAD, they’re just… bonuses and side-missions, which Colors puts on the same level as the main stages.

    Sonic Colors is a surprisingly different, and IMO, much BETTER experience if you just play the “old acts.” It feels substantial, thanks to the slower pace of the stages, the variety offered by the Wisps, and the fact that there are TWO full-size acts per zone (as opposed to just one day stage in Unleashed, and one “Act 2” boost level in Generations).

    I’m trying not to overstate it ’cause recency bias, but I believe Sonic Colors is significantly better designed than I’ve ever given it credit for, and all it took for me to see that was culling all the mediocre, pace-breaking gimmick stages out of the game, haha.

  6. I’ve played both a lot, and even though I prefer the DS one from a gameplay perspective+story (just for including the Sonic crew AND Super Sonic vs giant monster.) I gotta say the Wii version is quite pretty and I always use it as an example as how Sonic Unleashed could’ve worked on Wii had it not been PS2-ported by a different company.

    Aside from the dumb, downgrading, embarrassing jump in story telling, which I try to forget, I am just not into this kind of gameplay for a 3D Sonic game. It’s tiring to say but there’s no way I can say something positive about the gameplay without sounding hypocritical, because in reality I just want the Adventure/Heroes/06 gameplay back with levels that take AT LEAST 2 minutes to complete.

    My other rant about Colors is that every Sonic on the GameCube was near perfect 60 fps, if this game needed the 30 fps for the performance that’s fine, but it’s really unfortunate when IMO the graphics in Heroes and Shadow were quite good and that was just GC.

    Sonic Colors really was a punch to the gut for old fans, they took away the characters, they added obnoxious characters (Cubot), they replaced the voice cast, there’s nothing here really to call a story, and it’s really nitpicking here but I don’t need a beeping reticle when performing the homing attack, like, I’ve played 3D Sonic before, I _know_ how to do this. This isn’t an improvement, it’s automated design and it makes the game less fun to play.

    To go even further, the hint markers in this game are so pointless: they stop you in your tracks and they can be turned off. But here’s the thing, it’s Tails the one who reads the hint, now having played previous Sonic games wouldn’t I enjoy hearing the characters talking through the gameplay? Sure, even if it’s just game jargon it’s always fun to listen to the character say “press the B button to do a somersault” or “pressing the X button will let me do a 180 to gain a burst of speed.” But because you’re stopped by the message and therefore taken out of the game I end up avoiding them, if not just turning them off. …I can keep going, the rail grinding mechanic is pointless because it’s just a more restricted quickstep, there’s no sense of danger, in 2D games grinding is cool because you can use it to maintain speed, if you jump at the right time you can gain height or speed, here the rails are just _there_, just another automated section to go through. Personally what I like about rails in most 3D games is mastering them, being able to land on them from a long drop (SA2,Heroes) 06 to an extent , since you could home attack to them so it was easier, in Shadow you could land from a high place in certain stages but it was mostly a risk-free mechanic there.

    I’ll just say it like I think it is: Sonic Colors is a game for kids and nothing more, there’s nothing in it for the older fans of the series, the fanservice went to the DS version but it is still lackluster.

  7. Colors, in my honest opinion, is as a whole package the best in a trilogy of games (along with Unleashed and Generations) where every game is better at something than the other two and all three (Werehog notwithstanding) are on relatively even ground. And I love all three, but Colors for some reason ended up getting the raw end of the deal, and I’m glad you ended up agreeing with me. It has its issues, for sure, and I don’t blame people for disliking the game for those reasons but I loved it and I’ve come back to it (and especially Arcade mode, that’s a very fun time) several times since I first played it on Dolphin in…2016 I think? I own the Wii version now.

    As for DS…I wasn’t fond of it for the same reason I wasn’t a fan of the Rush games very much and that’s that the level design never comes off as memorable to me and the gameplay’s so fast I can’t see what’s coming, but I know plenty of people love Rush all the same so it might just be me, and this is Rush with Wisps so it’s a solid game still.

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